Articles in Memoir
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Shiva has a temper as gargantuan as his persona, but that is to be expected from the god who destroys all evil. If you invoke his ire, be ready to be turned into stone. But if you appeal to his compassion through major sacrifices, sit back and reap the fruits lavished upon you. Shiva spent long periods of time on Mount Kailasha, a heavenly retreat where he performed penance in a solitary world away from his wife Parvati and their newly conceived child, Ganesh.
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Parvati never got used to being alone without her husband, but feared stoking his wrath. She spent her days showering attention on their beautiful, chubby baby boy. Her maternal love nurtured his body and soul and soon he grew into a vibrantly healthy young boy. One morning, as was his routine, Ganesh stood guard outside his mother’s door with a sword in one hand as she bathed in milk, honey and fresh petals of rose and jasmine. Her strict instructions not to allow anyone entrance into her private chambers rang in his ears.
The morning rays of Surya, the god of sun, filtered through the doorway. Within moments the room darkened and Ganesh looked up to see an unkempt old fakir in a white dhoti standing barefoot with a stick in one hand. He was about to march through the door, into Parvati’s private quarters when Ganesh brandished his sword. The aged man was Shiva, his father, but Ganesh had never seen him since his birth. Nor did Shiva recognize his son, and soon his annoyance filled the chambers like blinding smoke. He bellowed to Ganesh to step aside, but the boy refused to budge. Shiva yanked the sword from his little hands and with the sharpness of its blade that swished through the air with metallic splendor, severed Ganesh’s head in one clean motion.
The commotion brought Parvati running to the door and she shrieked in disbelief at what her husband had done. “You have killed your son with your own anger,” she sobbed. “Now how can I continue to live?” Shiva’s wrath dissipated as swiftly as icy water on a burning ember. He fell to his knees and wept for his son. He promised Parvati that he would bring Ganesh back by planting on his empty shoulders the first living creature’s head that would walk by their home. Just then the earth shook and Shiva poked his head out the door to see what caused the tremor. A baby elephant had strayed away from his herd and was thundering by. As promised, Shiva ran to the elephant and, with the same sword that had made his son lifeless, rendered the elephant headless with one stroke.
A god is born
He gathered the head and planted it on his firstborn’s shoulders. Soon Ganesh’s body stirred into life and he awoke to find his mother and father showering blessings on him, whispering his name, Gajanan Ganesh, the elephant-headed celestial being about to be worshipped by millions as the bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow.
On Ganesh Chaturthi, the day of his birth (which in 2013 will be celebrated on Sept. 9), my Amma always made his favorite: delicately wrapped shells of rice flour housing two different kinds of filling, one with red chile-spiked lentils, the other a sweet combination of fresh coconut, jaggery and freshly ground cardamom. She shaped the savory dumplings into boats, while the sweet ones were round to differentiate them when they are sealed. Steamed with pearly beads of water clinging to their satin skins, they lay on banana leaves in front of Ganesh’s statue as he sat on his throne, a dumpling in his left hand, right hand facing me in raised blessing, and his mascot, the furry rodent who lay by his feet, nibbling on a modak (dumpling). Once the kozhakuttais were blessed, they easily slid down our throats and into our hungry bellies, the spicy ones first followed by their sweetly innocent kin.
Pooranam Kozhakuttai (Steamed Dumplings With Coconut)
Makes 20 dumplings
For the filling:
1 cup freshly shredded coconut (available in the freezer section of any Asian market)
½ cup coarsely chopped jaggery or tightly packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from green pods), ground
For the wrappers:
1½ cups rice flour
¼ teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1½ cups warm water
6 tablespoons canola oil
Additional oil for shaping the wrappers
For the filling:
1. Combine the coconut and jaggery in a small saucepan, heating it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the jaggery dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Stir in the cardamom. Transfer the filling to a plate to cool.
For the wrappers:
1. Dump the rice flour and salt into a medium-size bowl; whisk in the warm water, a few tablespoons at a time, to make a crêpe-thin batter.
2. Stir 3 tablespoons oil into the batter. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and batter into a cold wok or non-stick skillet. Heat the batter over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps from forming, until the batter thickens up, starts to pull away from the sides of pan, and comes together into a ball to form soft dough, 5 to 7 minutes. It should feel silky smooth but not sticky to the touch. Transfer the dough to a plate and spread it a bit to cool, 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Divide the dough into twenty equal parts; shape each part into a smooth ball. Grease the palms well with oil. Place a ball in the palm of one hand. With the fingers of the other hand, press and shape it into a 3-inch-round wrapper. Place a scant teaspoon of the filling in its center. Gather up the corners of the wrapper and bring them towards the center to cover the filling. Pinch the gathered edges together to seal shut, shaping it into a Hershey’s Kiss-like tip. Repeat with the remaining rounds and filling.
4. Prepare a steamer pan and fill it with water for steaming. Heat the water to boil over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the steamer insert. Arrange the sealed dumplings (without overcrowding) and steam 10 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.
Top photo: Steamed dumplings with coconut. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Even an unrepentant meat eater like myself takes pause before the gory spectacle of tauromachia, the so-called art of bullfighting. Not that I’ve attended an actual Spanish corrida de toros, but I’ve recently seen Francesco Rosi’s painfully graphic 1965 film, “The Moment of Truth.” The “truth” of Spain’s traditional blood sport doesn’t get any more in your face than in Rosi’s classic tale of an aspiring young matador filmed on location at a huge bullring in Barcelona with a 300mm zoom lens used for soccer matches.
Animal rights advocates must have thrilled to the news in 2010 that bullfighting was being outlawed in Catalonia. From their perspective, a slaughterhouse bullet to an unsuspecting bovine brain is far more palatable than a matador’s sword “artistically” delivered between the shoulder blades to the heart of a charging one-ton toro.
After seeing Rosi’s film, I wished I could ask a bull: Would he prefer a painless but oblivious exit to one with suffering and style, or as bullfighting aficionados might say, con arte (with art)? As for me, I’d want to go con arte.
Bottom line, in either scenario the bull will be killed, butchered, cooked and eaten. Frankly, I’ve never considered bullfighting from a gastronomic perspective. I can now see, however, that the matador’s art form represents, in some sense at least, the first stage of an ancient life cycle ritual that ends, one way or another, at the dinner table.
A Spanish butcher in Berkeley
For all I knew, before Anzonini del Puerto arrived on the Berkeley scene in the late 1970s, the bloodied hulks dragged from bullrings were buried with cultural, if not military, honors. Anzonini, a legendary flamenco performer, butcher and cook from Andalusia (one of his nicknames was “butcher of bulls”) disabused me of my naïve disconnect.
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As a young man, Anzonini, born Manuel Bermúdez Junquera in 1917, worked at his family’s carnicería (butcher shop) in Puerto de Santa María, near Jerez in southern Spain. Among his tasks was to help cart bulls from the ring and prepare the meat for sale. The family shop was located near the town’s majestic Plaza de Toros. Legend has it that Anzonini could break down an entire bull and be back at the bullring in time to see the next fight.
When Anzonini arrived in Berkeley to visit a group of young flamenco students who had seen him sing and dance in southern Spain, they were ecstatic. These would-be performers worshipped Anzonini not only for his magnetic arte on stage, but also for his gifts in the kitchen. All of which were on full display the night I met Anzonini at a small fiesta held in his honor.
The evening was special for everyone involved: Anzonini’s fans and those, like myself, who were witnessing and tasting his special talents for the first time. As for Anzonini that night, well, he fell in love. The object of his coup de coeur (I know no Spanish language equivalent) was my fellow Cheese Board co-worker and founder of the now legendary Swallow Café at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, the late Patricia Darrow.
Anzonini’s favorite matador
Moving into Darrow’s small Gourmet Ghetto bungalow, Anzonini was soon presiding over local fiestas; performing, cooking and sharing stories about Spain with his adoring minions. I became one of Anzonini’s minions, and he bestowed upon me my flamenco name: Juan Ajo.
One story, recorded in Darrow’s unfinished manuscript about Anzonini and his food, expressed his deep connection to the Spanish corrida, not merely its beefy spoils. His favorite matador was Curro Romero who was, according to Anzonini, usually terrible, unintentionally comedic and often cowardly. But on some occasions Curro surpassed himself and his fellow toreros with technical and stylistic genius.
Darrow quotes one of Anzonini’s quips about Curro’s unique presence in the ring:
Running away [from the bull] Curro has more arte than all the rest … That’s how I dance; twenty times badly and one time with arte.
Anzonini obviously saw himself in Curro, at least in terms of performance. But in the kitchen there was never any doubt about Anzonini’s brilliance, and the dishes we tasted over the years were invariably delicioso.
Cocina con arte
Anzonini’s tasty contributions to Berkeley’s gastronomic gestalt in the late 1970s and early ’80s are seldom referenced today. That his sausages, especially his chorizo, inspired important California chefs such as sausage king Bruce Aidells (see the scene in Les Blank’s 1980 film “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” where they make chorizo together), and were a popular item for sale at Chef Victoria Wise’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, is passed over in most published accounts of Berkeley’s revolutionary food scene.
Nevertheless, Anzonini and his cooking live on in the memories and stomachs of those who shared those exciting years with him in Berkeley. The aroma coming off his beefy Puchero, a classic Spanish soup simmering on my stove as I write this, is a ticket back to those delicious days when Anzonini del Puerto, butcher of bulls, served his inimitable cocina con arte.
Serves 10 to 12
One of Anzonini’s most celebrated dishes is a delicately seasoned soup/stew prepared with a variety of fatty meats; in this version, oxtails, short ribs and shank. He kept containers of the broth frozen in the refrigerator and would bring it to friends when they were sick. The dish can be served separately as a Sopa de Picadillo with chopped egg, ham and mint followed by a meat course accompanied by small potatoes cooked in the broth.
For the broth:
6 to 8 quarts cold water
6 to 8 pounds beef (oxtails, short ribs, shank)
¾ pound salt pork
2 large tomatoes, quartered
2 large onions, quartered
1 large green bell pepper, sliced
2 to 4 bay leaves
8 to 10 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
2 dozen small boiling potatoes
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 cup diced ham, preferably Spanish
Fresh mint leaves
Bread brushed with olive oil and toasted
lemon slices (optional)
1. The day before serving, bring all ingredients for the broth to a boil and skim off impurities. Continue cooking at a slow boil for 2 to 3 hours, until meat falls off the bones. Refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, remove the fat layer that has solidified on top of the broth. Then heat the meat and broth and correct for salt. Remove the meats from the broth and discard the loose bones. Keep meat warm.
3. Boil potatoes in the broth until soft. Keep warm.
4. To serve, place a few teaspoons of chopped egg and diced ham in shallow soup bowls. Pour in the hot broth. Garnish with a mint leaf and serve with toasted bread. (Anzonini would fry the bread in olive oil.)
5. For the meat course, place meat back in remaining broth to heat through — a few minutes in simmering broth should do. Then serve the meat on plates with the potatoes. Hot broth can be placed on the table in gravy boats.
Note: Anzonini also served this broth in glasses with a slice of lemon and a mint leaf.
Top graphic: Gastro-graphical ISO street sign #4. Credit: L. John Harris
It was my 75th birthday, and I had no idea what to expect. My family insisted it be a surprise. We edged our way through a busy commercial street in Girona, Catalonia, and an open doorway beckoned us into the peaceful, sunlit courtyard of El Celler de Can Roca. “A glass of Cava perhaps?” smiles our server, and so begins five hours of unparalleled feasting. El Celler de Can Roca opened 27 years ago and is run by three brothers: Joan at the kitchen range, Jordì the pastry chef and Josep the sommelier. The three have created a gourmet destination that combines past and future with extraordinary brilliance. This March it was named best restaurant in the world on a website sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
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Within the restaurant, the surroundings are strongly linked to the earth, with trees, pebbles and wood-paneled walls enclosing views on a miniature forest of birch trees, giving a feeling of the outdoors. In any restaurant, what’s on the plate should tell you where you are, and with our drinks arrives a tiny bonsai olive tree, instantly setting the scene. We crunch the hanging olives and our mouths burst with salty sweetness — the anchovy-stuffed fruits have been veiled in a whisp of caramel. What could be more symbolic of the ancient city of Girona in the mountains of northern Catalonia, flanked by olive groves running down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The olives lead into a tour of the world in tiny bites: a tomato and coriander guacamole from Mexico, an explosive ball of ceviche broth representing Peru, and pickled vegetables with plum cream as an echo of China. Visit on a different day and the world tour will be different we are told.
Eager to explore, we opt for the menu of the day, which leads to some 25 eye-catching, palate-teasing tastings, several of them among the most intriguing I’ve encountered anywhere. Just a small spoonful of zarzuela, pungent and concentrated, sums up the essence of the rustic Catalonian fish soup. A single prawn from the nearby port of Palamos provides astonishingly intensive tastes of raw tail, dried feelers, toasted liver meat, and jus from the shell — I would never have thought such a barrage of varied flavors could be extracted from one small beast.
Old and new cuisine combine in the two or three mouthfuls of crisp baby pig belly moistened with a Riesling jus, and the pigeon in a classic salmis blood, and liver sauce spiked with nuggets of candied walnut, a mastery of richness and intensity. Though the tastings are tiny, the ingredients are not treated as playthings (one of the great drawbacks of today’s Modernist cuisine). As the meal progresses, it’s clear that Chef Joan is focusing on regional ingredients — fish such as red mullet and bream, are typical of the Mediterranean, the green and black olives are local, pork comes from Iberian pigs, and game from the foothills of the mountains. Some seasonings hark back to the Arabs — rose water, honey, ras el hanout, saffron and orange.
The cooking at Can Roca has roots, but no way could it have been achieved without an ultra-modern kitchen. On arrival, we had been welcomed backstage to see the banks of buttons, stainless steel and gadgetry. The restaurant has lots of staff, too: 35 cooks in the kitchen and a couple dozen servers for perhaps 50 guests. The staff is as international as the diners, John from Philadelphia had just completed seven months at the stove, and Rocio, our server and guide, was from Valencia in southern Spain.
Among the abundance of dishes, the astonishing truffle soufflé stands out, a 2-inch round of feather-light hot truffle mousse enclosed in discs of fresh black truffle, set on a round of warm bone marrow and served under a glass bell which, when lifted, pervades the air with a hint of BBQ smoke. I like to think of myself as a soufflé expert, but I cannot imagine how this tour de force could be carried from the kitchen to diner after diner with never a hint of collapse.
Are the Roca brothers a successor to their former neighbor, Ferran Adrià at el Bullì? The two restaurants share the same Catalonian spice-perfumed air, the freshest of fish, the olive oil and garlic and warm registers of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin that date back to medieval times, backed up the rust red of paprika brought from the New World.
But Adrià, who creates imaginary images and flavors, the Roca brothers focus on real food on the plate. What distinguishes them from other Modernist chefs is their use of modern techniques against a background of tradition. If this is where the gastronomic future lies, let’s pursue it with gusto!
Guests exclaim in surprise when tasting these salty olives dipped in caramel. They will hold up an hour or two, perfect with a glass of cava sparkling white wine, or a very dry martini.
Makes about 30 to 40 olives
1 cup (about 5 ounces) anchovy-stuffed olives in brine
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1. Drain the olives and dry them very thoroughly on paper towels, squeezing slightly to extract as much brine as possible. This helps the caramel remain crisp. Spear each olive on a toothpick. Set them on a tray lined with paper towels and chill them, uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of hot water, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
2. Mix the sugar and water in a small, deep saucepan. (You will have leftover syrup, but this amount is needed for dipping.) Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring once or twice. Bring the syrup to a boil and boil without stirring to the hard crack, 294 F/146 C on a sugar thermometer. The syrup should be just starting to color. Take at once from the heat and plunge base of the pan into the bowl of hot water to stop cooking.
3. Holding an olive with the toothpick, dip it into the syrup (the syrup sets quicker on cold olives). Lift out, twirl so the olive is lightly coated, let cool a few seconds so the syrup solidifies, and set the olive on the parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining olives. The syrup may start to set, and if so reheat it until liquid and keep going.
4. Transfer the olives to a platter for serving. Serve them at room temperature.
Top photo: Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
Chinese supermarkets are an all-encompassing sensorial experience and can be quite overwhelming unless you know how to navigate them. After seven years of exploring Chinese markets, I’ve come to appreciate the unique ways they diverge from Western groceries.
The first step into a supermarket in China is actually a prologue to the food, usually consisting of small shops offering supplementary services. However, my attention is often quickly drawn away from these salespeople by my nose, given that supermarkets in China are lined with stalls selling street snacks.
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These stalls connect customers directly with the ingredients being sold. My current favorite fast lunch consists of liangcai, or cold food. The supermarket’s liangcai vendor mixes everything on the spot to your taste, first combining cold cuts, vegetables and noodles at your command, before mixing them with sesame paste, garlic, ground peanuts, sesame oil, rice vinegar, a handful of julienned carrots and cucumbers, and a bunch of cilantro. My local Jingkelong supermarket also sells cold rice noodles (liangpi), ground pork burgers (roujiamo) and fried crepe (jianbing) to be made on the spot and then eaten at home.
This Jingkelong, like other chains, boasts an entire chilled section dedicated exclusively to tofu. There are tens of types of tofus here: deep-fried, dried and shredded, spongy, skinned and in long sheets, smoked, spiced, soft, or served as imitation meat, to begin with. As if thumbing its nose at vegetarians, the tofu is usually unceremoniously arranged alongside packaged meats. These are of the plastic-coated, dried or cured variety. Plus shoppers find myriad animal parts like chicken feet, pork ears, or tripe on their way to the other sections.
Choosing fresh seafood
The fish section, usually offset in a semi-hidden back corridor, is very much focused on freshness. Customers can usually select marine life straight from tanks. When not available, the fish are kept on ice and I’ve noticed attendants spray them with water or even swipe them with the blood of other fish so they appear to have just been killed.
Sea cucumbers are found in a dedicated tank, as well as a special freezer, which I’ve seen locked in some cases, requiring an attendant to come with the keys and open it up. In the nearby Huapu grocery, there is a counter covered in red and gold silk embroidery and special gift boxes for purchasing dried sea cucumbers.
Unfortunately, my local supermarket does not have a frozen food section as good as the one at the Lotus I used to frequent as a student at Tsinghua University. I was always able to find vegetarian options from the endless array of freezers full of dumplings and baozi, or steamed buns with various ground fillings.
That is not a complaint, however, since I recently discovered a section with floor-to-ceiling shelves of bags of rice and flour, and troughs filled with legumes of all colors and shapes including my current favorite for making sweet, warm breakfast porridge, the inimitable red and green adzuki beans.
Supermarkets in China a 3-story adventure in food shopping
About half of the first floor of this massive Jingkelong, which has three floors, is reserved for breads. There is a fresh bakery stall with at least 100 types of cakes, cookies, breads, rolls and moon cakes. An imitation-Western bread section with overly-frosted birthday cakes and overly-squishy processed breads; and then, glory that be, a section with all the steamed, baked, fried, rolled and smoked breads freshly made that you can ever dream of.
My first explorations into Chinese supermarkets involved lunging headfirst into the candy aisles, where you can pick out squishy jellies, powdery bean cakes and chewy milk candies by the half-kilo (1.1 pounds, or a jin). I then graduated to nuts, my favorites being peanuts fried with dried red peppers and Sichuan tingly pepper berries for a satisfying kick. Sauces and seasonings, oils and vinegars, condiments and toppings came next and today I’m addicted to salty fermented soybeans, which add a smoky, meaty gravitas to steamed vegetables that need an added punch. I next plan to dive into the kimchi and pickled goods section.
Increasingly, supermarkets in China feature an imports section, which never fails to surprise me in its breadth of chocolates, olive oils and alcohols. It’s clear Chinese are getting into Guinness beer, imported wine and whiskeys. I’m skeptical about their quality, so I skip these. Instead, I’m starting to pick my way through the Chinese tea, herbs and medicines section.
What I have yet to understand is why the medicine department is situated alongside the cigarette and baijiu (sorghum alcohol) aisle. From the Chinese perspective, it might be an extreme illustration of yin and yang, though in my Western eyes I’ll simply say that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Top photo: Jingkelong supermarket on Tianshuiyuan Lu in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
I recently had the privilege of going to La Couronne, that famous restaurant in France where Julia Child had the sole meuniere that changed the course of her life. A non-cook at the time, she was introduced to a preparation in the French manner, an “aha revelation” of what food can taste like in the hands of a good cook. So off she went to cooking school, armed with sustaining curiosity and the ability to do hard work. And as we know, she pretty much succeeded in demystifying a glorious cuisine for an American audience.
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Julia‘s “aha moment” reminded me that food can serve as a wondrous vehicle for recognizing what may be a transforming experience. This could be in a practical sense as in starting Julia Child on an extraordinary career, or as an enlightening symbol, used most famously by Marcel Proust who wrote “Remembrance of Things Past,” a novel in seven volumes about involuntary memory. By nibbling on a petite madeleine and sipping tea, Proust’s main character is transported back to his childhood and flooded with long-buried memories that go on to fill hundreds of pages.
Something of the sort played out for me several years ago when I was having dinner with an elderly aunt. We were eating chicken and began one of those discussions about white meat versus dark meat when all of a sudden her face hardened and her eyes flashed with anger as she started to speak of her childhood. Some 75 years earlier, her mother used to give the white meat, the most tender part of the chicken, to her older sister who was a bit frail, while she, the younger sturdier child, was given the less desirable dark meat. I was astonished that she harbored such fury for so many years until I realized that to her the white meat of the chicken symbolized love and caring. She felt deprived and never got over it. People don’t.
Virginia Woolf had no appetite for these food memories
Food discrimination is easily used to make political points. Virginia Woolf, who by and large was indifferent to food, had an “aha moment” when she noticed and contrasted dinners served in the men’s and women’s university dining halls at Oxbridge. In “A Room of One’s Own,” her classic treatise on the disparity between women’s and men’s rights and privileges, she says that the men were served sole cooked in cream, and succulent partridges “with all their retinue of sauces and salads … sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent,” delicate pastries for dessert and wine glasses continually filled by hovering servants.
As for the women, they were served “beef with its attendant greens and potatoes … suggesting rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge and bargaining and cheapening.” Next comes custard and prunes “stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers’ veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years.” Finally the biscuits showed up, and “the water jug was liberally passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core.” Point taken.
While some “aha” food revelations can be poignant, even sad, I recalled a memory that was, like Julia’s, happy and full of promise. I remember buying my first cookbook and realizing that knowing how to cook decently was a skill that would serve me well for the rest of my life. It was when I was a graduate student living in my own apartment for the first time, having progressed from the parental home to college dorm life with roommates to finally my own place and my own kitchen.
I went out and bought pots and pans and, from a secondhand bookstore, a paperback copy of my first cookbook, “The World’s Best Recipes,” edited by Marvin Small. The anthology included dishes from such luminaries as Escoffier, James Beard and Elizabeth David. My “aha moment” hit me when I read through the book and found it to be a treasure, for it not only gave me trustworthy recipes, but a bit of food history, a subject I have always found captivating. Further, the book encouraged me to try dishes I had never eaten, let alone cooked, and I soon developed some specialties such as shish kebab made with a delicious marinade and a rice pilaf enhanced with onions, pine nuts, currants and spices.
Those dishes became my signatures when I entertained fellow graduate students, and one of them, a guy who, as far as I could tell, was eating a steady diet of cheeseburgers from a corner diner, praised my cooking and came back for more. This is the man I eventually married. I know it wasn’t only my cooking that captivated him, but I suspect it helped, and I like to think that when he had his first dinner at my place he too had an “aha moment.”
(Adapted from a recipe found in Marvin Small’s “The World’s Best Recipes”)
Serves 4 to 6
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, finely chopped
¼ pine nuts
2 cups of rice
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ cup currants
1 large tomato
4 cups of meat stock (canned will work)
1. Heat oil in saucepan. Sauté the chopped onions, but do not brown them. Add the pine nuts and then the rice; sauté for five minutes, stirring all the while to prevent sticking.
2. Bring the stock to a boil in another pan.
3. Add the sugar, pepper, salt, allspice, currants, chopped tomato and the stock to the pan with the rice mixture. Stir everything together and cook gently, covering the pot with a cloth as well as the lid until the liquid is absorbed.
4. Allow to stand for 15 minutes without further cooking before serving.
Top photo: Sole meuniere at La Couronne in Rouen, France. Credit: Barbara Haber
The recent downpours in Mumbai invoked the college memories of chai, that impeccable cup of milky brown brew, black tea steeped with ginger, cardamom and comfort. One typical gray June morning, a double-decker bus waded through the murky waters — ah, monsoons in Mumbai, you’ve got to love them! Pervasive dampness clinging to moist skin and polyester clothing, climbing petticoats under 6-yard saris, seeping through leather clogs.
Raincoats, umbrellas and gumboots are ineffectual in their battle with the pregnant clouds, unable to keep the virulent waters from invading the core of your being. I gingerly stepped from the bus into knee-deep water and waded to the entrance of the college canteen, joining my friends there, huddled together, deep in discussion on the upcoming practical (exam) on frog, earthworm and cockroach dissection. The gory details never bothered even the daintiest stomach as gulps of steaming hot chai provided tranquility against the angry downpour.
Chai is the lifeblood of India’s social, political and business gatherings. In a store selling silk saris, as you debate the choice of the flame red silk laced with gold or the midnight purple with a sea green border and green leaves, the owner will offer you a cup of hot chai in a stainless steel tumbler to enlighten your decision. Visit your best friend or close a hostile business deal, but first sip chai. Stroll down the dry streets of summer Mumbai or wade through a foot of standing water in the harsh monsoons, but always take a moment to sip chai, available on every street corner, hawked by vendors everywhere.
There are different variations on chai, but chai always means tea, so, if you will permit me two seconds on my soapbox, it would be redundant to say “chai tea.” It is chai, pure and simple.
Makes 4 cups
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger
10 to 12 green or white cardamom pods
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup Darjeeling or Assam loose black tea leaves (or 8 tea bags)
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk or 4 teaspoons white granulated sugar
If you have a mortar, dump the ginger and cardamom into it and with the pestle, pound it a few times to release some of the juices and oils. Alternately, put the two ingredients into a mini chopper or food processor’s bowl and pulse a few times to break the spices down a bit and release those incredible aromas.
Bring the 2 cups water and the milk to a rapid boil, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, uncovered, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. As soon as it comes to a boil, stir in the tea leaves and the pounded ginger-cardamom blend. Bring it to a boil again, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the milk’s color changes into a light brown tint and is scented with the strong, heady aromas of ginger and cardamom, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the sweetened condensed milk or sugar and turn off the heat. Strain the chai into serving cups and serve piping hot.
Tip: Even though I have recommended ginger and cardamom, spices like ground cloves, cinnamon, and even black pepper are great sprinkled in chai. Add it at the same juncture you would the ginger and cardamom.
Top photo: The essential chai. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Why did I smell roasted soybeans in my glass of vintage Bordeaux? Ten years ago, as the tasting editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine, sniffing a glass of vintage red wine took me back to my earliest childhood memories of foods in Korea. While some in the tasting panel described the smells of mushroom and barnyard flavors, my descriptors recalled the pungent smells of fermented foods such as aged kimchi and soybean paste that were always condiments on the table in our home.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
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By Lauryn Chun
It was a clarifying moment. I understood the tie that binds some of the most flavorful fermented foods. Kimchi (a brined pickle) also undergoes the process of fermentation that brings out complex, secondary flavors and umami (the taste of a savory protein compound in certain natural foods).
The fermentation connection
The complementary relationship between wine and the Korean food I grew up eating turned auspicious a few years ago when I started my business: Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, a line of packaged napa cabbage, daikon and vegan kimchis. Kimchi goes through active fermentation when its vegetables (typically napa cabbage or radish) are mixed with a heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is aged for as little as three days and as long as a few years. The result is a crunchy, tangy, spicy and complex pickle that’s rich in digestion-enhancing probiotics. The flavors continue to change with time. I once opened a daikon radish kimchi aged over two years that had notes of aged salami and cheese.
As I wrote “The Kimchi Cookbook” and began testing a vast array of kimchi recipes using a panoply of seasonal vegetables, I explored the parallels of natural fermentation in winemaking and kimchi making. The process allowed me to help demystify and share the versatility of kimchi as a condiment and cooking ingredient that complements and enhances the pleasure of a meal much like an everyday wine.
Enjoying kimchi alongside wine results in a sensory experience in which taste and texture come alive. Both can be judged by their fruit flavors, length of acidity and overall balance.
Pairing wine + kimchi
Through a number of tastings, I have come across some stellar kimchi-wine pairings that can serve as a guide. For example, an off-dry white sparkling Grüner Veltliner or a German Kabinette Riesling is a perfect companion for the robust spice and texture of daikon kimchi. The wine’s bubbles and hint of sweetness help offset the heat and tangy notes of the kimchi and counterbalance the multitude levels of flavors. A simple Beaujolais Nouveau (yes, a red wine!) is wonderful with napa cabbage kimchi; the Beaujois’ lack of tannins brings out the fruity notes of the chili in the kimchi seasoning rather than spice that one would normally expect.
Being a wine lover shaped my understanding of kimchi — the characteristics in fermentation frame a balance of flavors and textures in my sensory experience that makes fermented foods so uniquely appealing to us all.
Top photo composite:
Lauryn Chun. Credit: Renato D’Agostin
Kimchi jars. Credit: Sara Remington